Fright or flight

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Travel - By KAREN KA­PLAN

SOME­TIMES it seems hu­mans just can’t do any­thing right. The well-in­ten­tioned, con­ser­va­tion-minded peo­ple who spend mil­lions of dol­lars a year on eco­tourism might be mak­ing the very crit­ters they’re try­ing to pre­serve more vul­ner­a­ble to preda­tors.

That’s the warn­ing from a group of ecol­o­gists work­ing in Brazil, France and the United States. Writ­ing in the jour­nal Trends in Ecol­ogy & Evo­lu­tion, they of­fer a plethora of rea­sons why wild an­i­mals might suf­fer from the be­nign at­ten­tion of hu­mans.

Peo­ple visit pro­tected na­ture ar­eas an es­ti­mated 8 bil­lion times a year, and they spend about US$600bil (RM2.56tril) while do­ing so, ac­cord­ing to a re­port in PLOS Bi­ol­ogy. What dis­tin­guishes th­ese trips from other types of travel is that they al­low tourists to see wild places in a way that “con­serves the en­vi­ron­ment, sus­tains the well-be­ing of the lo­cal peo­ple, and in­volves in­ter­pre­ta­tion and ed­u­ca­tion,” ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Eco­tourism So­ci­ety.

But there are sev­eral ways that th­ese well-in­ten­tioned vis­its can back­fire, the re­port says.

For in­stance, sim­ply spend­ing time around hu­mans can lull an­i­mals into a false sense of se­cu­rity. Ev­i­dence for this comes from stud­ies of “flight ini­ti­a­tion dis­tance,” which is a mea­sure of how close to a threat an an­i­mal is will­ing to be be­fore it tries to es­cape.

Re­searchers have found that the wild an­i­mals liv­ing around peo­ple in ur­ban ar­eas have smaller flight ini­ti­a­tion dis­tances than an­i­mals liv­ing in ru­ral ar­eas, where hu­mans are more scarce.

In one ex­per­i­ment, ur­ban fox squir­rels al­lowed peo­ple to get seven times closer to them be­fore run­ning away com­pared with fox squir­rels in ru­ral ar­eas. (Sim­i­lar pat­terns have been ob­served with birds.) The foxes that were used to peo­ple also had a tamped-down re­sponse to the vo­cal­i­sa­tions of their preda­tors, ac­cord­ing to a 2009 study in the jour­nal Land­scape Ecol­ogy.

Even when peo­ple ig­nore the wildlife around them, they tend to cre­ate a “hu­man shield” that pro­tects cer­tain an­i­mals that would oth­er­wise wind up as prey, the au­thors of the new study warn. That’s be­cause their preda­tors are afraid to pen­e­trate the hu­man shield to hunt. As a re­sult, the prey an­i­mals be­come less vig­i­lant to threats.

When eco­tourists ven­ture into the wild, they cre­ate what amounts to a “tem­po­rary hu­man shield,” the study au­thors wrote. Ev­i­dence for this comes from Grand Te­ton Na­tional Park, where the more tourist traf­fic there was, the less time pronghorn sheep and elk spent in “alert pos­tures,” ac­cord­ing to a 2014 re­port in PLOS One. The an­i­mals also gath­ered in smaller groups when more tourists were nearby.

There’s even bi­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence that some an­i­mals (in this case, igua­nas) ex­posed to tourists pro­duce fewer stress hor­mones.

In places where tourism is sea­sonal, the tem­po­rary pro­tec­tion af­forded by tourists could make wildlife more vul­ner­a­ble in the months when hu­mans are not around, the study warns.

Eco­tourism may also make life eas­ier for poach­ers, the study au­thors added. Some an­i­mals, such as ele­phants, are able to dis­tin­guish be­tween threat­en­ing and non­threat­en­ing hu­mans. But other an­i­mals are less savvy. Field re­searchers have found that go­ril­las and Bar­bary macaques that have be­come ha­bit­u­ated to tourists were slower to hide, flee or at­tack when poach­ers ap­proached.

Th­ese risks may mean that eco­tourism should be added to the list of hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties that are mak­ing the world less hos­pitable for wildlife – a list that in­cludes things such as cli­mate change, de­for­esta­tion and pol­lu­tion, the ecol­o­gists wrote.

Some­thing to think about be­fore you book your next va­ca­tion. – Los An­ge­les Times/Tri­bune News Ser­vice.

A Cal­i­for­nia grey whale ap­proached a group of eco­tourists off the coast of Baja Cal­i­for­nia, Mex­ico. — SPENCER WEINER/Los An­ge­les Times.

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